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“It is certainly the day of judgment,” said Candide.
[Candide, or The Optimist by Voltaire]
Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, Mock on, ’tis all in vain.
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back, they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
Little did I know a few weeks ago when I took a break from posting on this website that it would be a series of unexpected tragedies, each catastrophic in its own way, that would compel me to start writing again. Hurricanes, earthquakes, the largest mass shooting in American history, a devastating set of wildfires—each of these individually grips the brain with terror and horror. That all could occur in a single month is unimaginable. But, alas, it’s true. Here we are confronted with them.
There must be a reason. Why has this happened to us here and now?
According to evangelist Franklin Graham, this surfeit of disasters could be “Biblical signs before Christ’s return.”
For those skeptical of religion there are several secular reasons to choose from—the L.A. Times cites global warming:
“As a rule, climate scientists are generally loathe to say that any particular fire, flood, drought or hurricane was caused by climate change — but they can point to the general likelihood that such extreme events might occur, or the complex ways in which they’re influenced, by climate change.”
The Economist agrees and adds poor forest management practices for good measure:
“Climate change and forest-management practices both contribute. But the worst may be yet to come.”
The worst may be yet to come?
Candide, amazed, terrified, confounded, astonished, all bloody, and trembling from head to foot, said to himself, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?
[Candide, by Voltaire]
The Atlantic points to lax building codes and economic factors including inequality:
“People don’t just find themselves in places vulnerable to flooding. They are pushed there by racial injustice, economic inequality, and short-term, profit-driven development practices. The long-term decay of the nation’s infrastructure is a direct result of policy decisions that politicians and communities make time and again. The Gulf Coast is an extreme example of this, a laboratory for what happens when you combine lax planning policies, aging flood-control mechanisms, and a geography that channels storms from the warm (and warming) waters of the Gulf into the cities that line it.” (This is reminiscent of the Dialogue between Voltaire and Rousseau on the Lisbon Earthquake.) (Voltaire’s poem can be found HERE.)
Meteorologist and disaster risk expert Stephen Strader adds population growth to the list of explanations: “Overdevelopment and expanding populations across the U.S. mean natural disasters now pose a greater risk to many other places …”
The Nation blames poor governance by President Trump and the Republican Congress: “Natural disasters call for good governance, not charity.”
A simple observation that appeals to me: “mother nature seems pretty pissed off right now.” This is the thought that occurs to me, while many factors are involved could it be that natural disasters are simply random events that occur from time to time and a concurrence of such disasters while rare is not a statistical impossibility?
The argument was made by Lao Tzu over 2500 years ago in the Tao Te Ching.
(Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu)
Heaven and earth aren’t humane.
To them the ten thousand things are straw dogs.
Wise souls aren’t humane.
To them the hundred families are straw dogs.
Heaven and earth act as a bellows:
Empty yet structured, it moves, inexhaustibly giving.
Tao Te Ching #5, Ursula K. Le Guin translation
Ursula Le Guin says in her commentary on this chapter:
The “inhumanity” of the wise soul doesn’t mean cruelty. Cruelty is a human characteristic. Heaven and earth—that is, “Nature” and its Way—are not humane, because they are not human. They are not kind; they are not cruel: those are human attributes. You can only be kind or cruel if you have, and cherish, a self. You can’t even be indifferent if you aren’t different. Altruism is the other side of egoism. Followers of the Way, like the forces of nature, act selflessly.
So many tragedies have happened recently, public as well as personal. I return to my original question. Why has this happened to us here and now? The universe is silent. The answers come from human beings, the only form of life that seems to require answers as far as we know, whether the answers are imagined, reasoned, or the result of scientific investigation.
There are many answers. Which can we believe? The philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote The Faith of a Heretic in 1963, a book I refer to often. The subtitle consisted of three questions: What Can I Believe? How Should I Live? What Do I Hope? These are questions each must answer individually. Some who believe in absolute answers might call this relativism. I call it personal responsibility. It was the New York Senator and American diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said: “You are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts.” (Some think the quote was first uttered by James Schlesinger or Bernard Baruch or others.) We must answer the existential questions on our own but, notwithstanding Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts”, we cannot go off the deep end willy-nilly. We must stay tethered to reality as best we can perceive it without constricting our imagination—the only way we have of seeing.
“In Anton Chekhov’s play the Three Sisters, sister Masha refuses ‘to live and not know why the cranes fly, why children are born, why the stars are in the sky. Either you know and you’re alive or it’s all nonsense, all dust in the wind.’ Why? Why? The striving to know is what frees us from the bonds of self, said Einstein. It’s the striving to know, rather than our knowledge-which is always tentative and partial- that is important. Instead of putting computers in our elementary schools, we should take the childrn out into nature, away from those virtual worlds in which they spend unconscionable hours, and let them see an eclipsed Moon rising in the east, a pink pearl. Let them stand in a morning dawn and watch a slip of a comet fling its trail around the Sun…Let the children know. Let them know that nothing, nothing will find in the virtual world of e-games, television, or the Internet matters half as much as a glitter of stars on an inky sky, drawing our attention into the incomprehensible mystery of why the universe is here at all, and why we are here to observe it. The winter Milky Way rises in the east, one trillion individually invisible points of light, one trillion revelations of the Ultimate Mystery, conferring on the watcher a dignity, a blessedness, that confounds the dull humdrum of the commonplace and opens a window to infinity.”
(Chet Raymo: An Intimate Look at the Night Sky)
At times of great tragedy like those of recent days there are no easy answers. Both Lao Tzu and the great French writer Albert Camus in their own way express the view that the world is silent to our woes. Voltaire in his great satire Candide expresses the view that there is no pre-established harmony to the universe.
“But then, to what end,” said Candide, “was the world formed?” “To make us mad,” said Martin.
Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus concludes that our responsibility as human beings is to accept our fate in an uncaring world and to push on nonetheless. We create our own purpose through our purposeful behavior even if we are doomed to fail in the long run. Yes, we all die and the rock will never stay lodged at the top of the hill but our tenacity, our rebellion is what makes our life worthwhile.
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
(The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus)
Voltaire points out that the study of human nature and human history tends it seems toward pessimism. When Candide speaks to his friend Martin of his great love for Lady Cunégonde, Martin responds as Voltaire would have responded:
“I wish,” said Martin, “she one day may make you happy; but I doubt it much.”
“You lack faith,” said Candide.
“It is because,” said Martin, “I have seen the world.”
As a tonic for the pessimism that abounds, Voltaire offers “the virtues of work, charity, loyalty, moderation and practicality. Such virtues may not always protect against the world’s fanaticism, but they offer the best chance of reaching what Voltaire and the French Enlightenment argued and fought for: freedom, toleration, justice and truth.”
If you believe as I do that human beings provide their own answers to the questions that hound them during times of tragedy, it will not surprise you that there is often a divide between religious answers and scientific answers. The Romantic poet William Blake was well aware of this divide. Reading his poem at the top of this post, one might think that Blake opposed science and favored a religious view of life. One must be careful with Blake whose thinking can be obscure and complex.
When Blake appears to oppose Enlightenment values, (in which his own thinking has a formative part), it is surely not because he opposes the evidence-based sciences but because he appreciates that human consciousness, for good or ill, seeks grand designs as well as facts. We are interested in the why of our origins, as well as the how. Blake’s mental capacities allowed astonishingly fruitful collisions of reason and imagination.
Blake was no religious zealot. He railed against church and priest. Consider this line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “Prisons are build with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.” Pure imagination can lead to fanaticism and worse. Blake did not go there. In his Prophetic Books he looks forward to a time when “science reigns.”
The war of swords departed now,
The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns.
(The Four Zoas, William Blake)
We will always have (I hope) both poets and scientists to lead us forward. We seem to need both. Personally I don’t know why we have been confronted by so many disasters in the here and now. I doubt there is any single reason and am open to the idea there may be no reason at all. Yet, we ask the question. We somehow need answers. Like Sisyphus we push the rock up the hill until we don’t. I’ll end this post with a quote from Gabriele Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Ironically Marquez, the master of “magical realism,” points us back to the ordinary reality of Voltaire’s Candide. Florentino, one of the main characters comes to learn that “nobody teaches life anything.”
Voltaire’s simple practical advice that “we must take care of our garden” is a conclusion Marquez comes to in his own way. At one point in the novel, Florentino [who works at his uncle’s River Company of the Carribean) tells his uncle Leo II: ”Love is the only thing that interests me.”
”The trouble,” his uncle replies, ”is that without river navigation, there is no love.”